The repatriation process can be used as an opportunity to decentre the construction of knowledge inspired by or even embodied by the returned objects themselves. However, opening access and co-creation of scholarship should not negate the physical transfer of objects and their ownership because Indonesian communities may consider them pusaka, writes Panggah Ardiyansyah
Southeast Asia’s countries have suffered a massive loss of cultural heritage because of colonialism, political instability, and lax legislation. Antiquities from the regions covering Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam were collected and shipped into private collections and museums in Europe, mainly in the Netherlands and France, from the late 19th to early 20th century. These objects were primarily collected during colonial scientific missions and military spoliations. Cambodia was further deprived of its ancient temples and ancestral objects from looting and illicit trade perpetuated by the unstable political situation between the 1960s and 1990s. Thailand established the law to protect heritage in 1851 and was updated regularly. Nonetheless, Bangkok has turned into a hub for illegal dispersal of Cambodian and Thai objects, mainly to the US and Europe.
In recent days, these countries have been successful in reclaiming their antiquities. Few of the looted objects were already returned. Earlier this year, the government of Cambodia received a donation of over 100 Khmer artefacts, previously owned by the disreputable private collector and antiquities dealer, Douglas Latchford. Around the same time, the Thailand government received two lintels from the US authorities, identified to be originated from the ancient temples of Prasat Khao Lon and Prasat Nong Hong and believed to be stolen in the 1960s. Indonesians finally reunited with the kris of Prince Diponegoro, their most beloved national hero, following its return from the Netherlands in March 2020. After the hand-over in Leiden, the kris was officially exhibited to the public during the visit of Dutch King Willem-Alexander to the National Palace of Indonesia in Bogor.
However, despite these examples and other well-documented object repatriation cases outside the region, universal museums in the US and Europe still seem reluctant to explore this issue further. In general, they believe that once they open the possibility of returning objects from their collections, they would ultimately need to empty their storage. This fear of loss partly prompts their perceptions of the origin countries’ inadequacy to conserve and manage historical objects following the standards set by museums and conservation agencies in the West.
Speaking from the context of Indonesia, both arguments appear to be unconfounded. The Indonesian authorities have iterated that they would focus on repatriating parts of European museum collections related to building Indonesia’s national identity (Wijaya 2020, Widyanuratikah 2021). The Museum National of Indonesia has constructed a new storage facility to house 1.500 artefacts handed over by the Netherlands coming from the former collection of Museum Nusantara (Wijaya 2020).
Instead of the narratives of loss, we should be thinking about the opportunities that the process of object repatriation could gain. The gain can be considered particularly in the construction of knowledge, as has been argued by Tythacott and Arvanitis (eds, 2014) and Tythacott and Ardiyansyah (eds, 2021).
In this blog post, I explore the kinds of knowledge production that are or could be engendered by the process of repatriating objects to Indonesia, with their benefits and limitations. Insights are gathered from two case studies: the collection transfer from the defunct Museum Nusantara in Delft to the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta and the digitisation of Yogyakarta manuscripts by the British Library. I aim to show that the repatriation process can be used as an opportunity to decentre the construction of knowledge inspired by or even embodied by the returned objects themselves. However, opening access and co-creation of scholarship should not negate the physical transfer of objects and their ownership because Indonesian communities may consider them pusaka.
Nusantara Collection: to Jakarta via Delft
Museum Nusantara in Delft, the Netherlands, sprang from the training institute for the soon-to-be colonial officers destined for the East Indies or present-day Indonesia. The institute, set up in 1864, was responsible for providing education on the Dutch colony’s cultures and customs. Objects from the various regions in the East Indies were collected to serve as learning materials. The museum was established in 1911 following the institute’s closure at the beginning of the 20th century. In 2012, the municipal government decided to stop financing Museum Nusantara, causing the museum to close its door in January 2013 and around 18.000 objects to be quickly de-accessioned (Beurden 2021).
Around 14.000 objects were offered to Indonesia in October 2015. The then Director-General for Culture, Kacung Marijan, immediately agreed to take up the offer (Purwanto 2015). An advance team from Indonesia would examine the historical objects and prepare their transfer from the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the process was abruptly stopped in March 2016 when the newly installed Director-General for Culture, Hilmar Farid, chose not to proceed with the collection transfer. Concerned parties in the Netherlands seems to be perplexed by this change of attitude (Beurden 2021).
In the panel convened for The Politics of Restitution, on 20 May 2021, Farid revealed the reasons behind his decision. Ultimately, he felt that Indonesia was forced to accept the offered collection without prior opportunity to study and select the objects jointly. The process was subsequently restarted in November 2016, following the meeting between Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, in Jakarta. Some objects had already been reserved for other museums in Vienna, Gothenburg, Kuching, Seoul, and Singapore. Indonesia then afforded to curate 1.500 objects to be accessioned by the National Museum. The selected objects finally arrived in Jakarta in December 2019.
Taking lessons from this process, the government of Indonesia has set up a repatriation committee at the start of this year. The committee is tasked with researching and selecting objects important to the history of Indonesia in close cooperation with museums in the Netherlands. In one of his interviews, Farid underlined the need to curate the objects to be returned while creating meaningful stories as they relate to the becoming of Indonesia (Wijaya 2020). The government also intends to provide scholarships for master and doctoral students to study the provenance and history of museum collections that originated from Indonesia (Maulipaksi 2021).
Yogyakarta Manuscripts: Manufacturing Access to Knowledge
Through its East India Company, the British administration took over Java from the Dutch (then under the Napoleonic rule) in 1811 following the Anglo-French War. Thomas Stamford Raffles, appointed as the Lieutenant Governor-General of Java, determined that the palace of Yogyakarta would pose a threat to British rule and decided to attack the palace in June 1812. This historical event is remembered locally as Geger Sepehi (or the Battle of Sepehi – the local iteration for Sepoy, the Indian contract infantrymen).
After the buildings were ransacked by the British army, most of the manuscripts were seized as spoils of war. In the 1970s, historians Peter Carey and MC Ricklefs have managed to identify 75 manuscripts in the British Library that are believed to be originated from Yogyakarta, which came into the collection via the hands of Raffles, John Crawfurd (then Resident of Yogyakarta), and Colin Mackenzie (then Chief Engineer of British Army in Java) (Gallop 2019, Gallop 2021). The visits of Yogyakarta officials in 2017 succeeded in convincing the British Library to prioritise the digitisation of Yogyakarta manuscripts so that they can be published online (Gallop 2021).
Started in March 2018 with the generous support of Mr SP Lohia, the digitisation project was completed within a year, and all 75 manuscripts can be accessed digitally through the British Library website. Annabel Gallop, the Lead Curator for the Southeast Asia collection in the British Library, has noted that the newly constructed online access for the manuscripts already generated the production of new historical knowledge by scholars in Indonesia (Gallop 2019). In March 2019, the Yogyakarta manuscripts’ digital data was officially handed over to the current ruler of the palace of Yogyakarta, Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X. It was warmly celebrated by the Indonesian media as the homecoming of ancient manuscripts looted by the British (Putri 2019).
From personal communication with the parties related to the palace of Yogyakarta, I learned that the palace is still pushing for the physical repatriation of the manuscripts. These objects are considered pusaka, or royal regalia, and it is thus argued that they ought to be physically transferred to and traditionally preserved by the palace of Yogyakarta. This kind of preservation might mean that some of the highly charged manuscripts could be restricted for public access, in contrast with the original intention of the digitisation project.
Concluding Discussions: Moving Forward
I have mentioned earlier that the repatriation process can decentre knowledge creation, which is particularly true for the Nusantara collection. When the Delft institute gathered the collection, followed by their display at the museum, and lastly, the offer for a significant number of objects to be bequeathed for Indonesia, the materials were mainly valued and analysed using the Dutch prism. By having the opportunity to choose 1.500 objects from the rest of the available collection, Indonesia was able to have a share of agency to assert its regime of value. The returned objects are thus afforded with special meanings to the Indonesian peoples. In The Politics of Restitution, Farid shows that this kind of process from Indonesia is here for the future, even though it would take longer to follow this repatriation procedure.
In terms of opening access to knowledge, the British Library arguably went in the right direction by manufacturing the digital resources for the Yogyakarta manuscripts. Once a privilege for scholars living in the UK or owning more considerable financial capital, the manuscripts now can be studied from Indonesia freely, or in any other parts of the world for that matter. This kind of digital repatriation consequently and perceptively would create an assumption that the physical transfer of ownership would be negated. On the other hand, the opposite is happening when the palace of Yogyakarta continues to voice the wish to have their pusaka returned.
Anthropologist Wahyono Martowikrido (1992) asserts that pusaka “… are objects and property left to us by our ancestors, and like other heirlooms of long-standing, are central to the sense of identity of their owners.” It is not lost in us that some of the important collections in the National Museum of Indonesia are considered as the pusaka of the Indonesian nation (see Soebadio and Miksic [eds] 1992). This layer of meaning embedded in the Indonesians’ objects may differ from those of European institutions whose emphasis is on scientific values.
Historian Sarah E Bond rightly contends that digitisation only camouflages the fact that “physical ownership of many of these objects of the countries that acquired them through raiding, looting, and colonial means” (Bond 2018). Instead, digital access should be seen as opening the road to the objects’ return and their transfer of ownership (Hickley 2020). To conclude this blog post, I would add that sensitivity of, and openness for, different regimes of values for the objects should guide future discussion on object repatriation.
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Bond, SE. (2018). British Exhibitions of Ethiopian Manuscripts Prompt Questions About Repatriation. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/446918/british-exhibitions-of-ethiopian-manuscripts-prompt-questions-about-repatriation/ (last accessed: 28 August 2021).
Gallop, A. (2019). Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta digitisation project completed. British Library. https://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2019/04/javanese-manuscripts-from-yogyakarta-digitisation-project-completed.html?_ga=2.194077992.486168961.1630142735-1290968531.1630142735 (last accessed: 28 August 2021).
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Hickley, C. (2020). Digital Benin: a milestone on the long, slow journey to restitution. The Art Newspaper. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/digital-benin-a-milestone-on-the-long-slow-journey-to-restitution (last accessed: 28 August 2021).
Martowikrido, W. (1992). Heirlooms of the Outer Islands. In Art of Indonesia: Pusaka, edited by H. Soebadio and J. Miksic, pp. 129–132. New York: The Vendome Press.
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Putri, GS. (2019). Pulangnya 75 Manuskrip Kuno Keraton Yogyakarta yang Dirampas Inggris [The Return of 75 Ancient Manuscripts from the Palace of Yogyakarta Looted by the British]. kompas.com. https://sains.kompas.com/read/2019/03/15/090800323/pulangnya-75-manuskrip-kuno-keraton-yogyakarta-yang-dirampas-inggris?page=all (last accessed: 28 August 2021).
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Wijaya, C. (2020). Indonesia-Belanda: Ratusan ribu benda bersejarah Indonesia dimiliki Belanda, akankah segera dikembalikan? [Indonesia-the Netherlands: Thousands of historical objects from Indonesia are owned by the Dutch, will they be returned?]. BBC News Indonesia. https://www.bbc.com/indonesia/indonesia-51749544 (last accessed: 27 August 2021).
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.